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Microsoft admits it knew of critical IE bug in early '08

Lengthy time gap 'not acceptable,' says analyst; workaround update set for Tuesday

July 9, 2009 10:25 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft on Thursday confirmed it has known about a bug behind widespread Internet Explorer (IE) attacks for more than a year, but defended its security process against critics.

According to Mike Reavey, director of Microsoft's Security Response Center (MSRC), the company first got word of a critical flaw in an ActiveX control in early spring 2008. The bug can be exploited through IE6 and IE7 on Windows XP. Two researchers, Ryan Smith and Alex Wheeler, reported the bug to Microsoft when they worked together at IBM's ISS X-Force in 2007. Smith is now a vulnerability researcher at VeriSign iDefense, while Wheeler manages 3Com's TippingPoint DVLabs.

Although both Smith and Wheeler have declined to say when they reported to vulnerability, the bug's CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) number pointed to an early 2008 reporting date.

The 16- to 18-month stretch between early 2008 and now is too long for Microsoft's customers to go without a patch, said John Pescatore, Gartner's primary security analyst. "That's just not an acceptable timeframe," Pescatore said. "It shouldn't take a year, not [for] a company the size of Microsoft.

"It's really hard to think of some technical reason why it would take 18 months. That means it must be for other reasons, business reasons or product reasons or priority reasons," he said. "But this had to have been pretty high-priority."

"We kicked off our investigation as soon as the vulnerability was reported to us," countered Reavey. "When a vulnerability is reported, we not only look at that, but also investigate other issues around it to provide as much protection as possible."

The 16- to 18-month time span, however, is certainly above average, Reavey agreed. "The timeline is not the norm," he said. "The vast majority of vulnerabilities are patched before there's ever an attack."

What, then, took so long?

Although Reavey declined to get specific today, Smith, one of the researchers who reported the vulnerability, hinted at reasons. "The nature of this flaw is sort of unique," he said. "The mechanics of this are sort of unique as well. It was those unique qualities that required more time than Microsoft would normally need."

Smith refused to criticize Microsoft for not patching sooner. "All along the way, they've told me how far things have progressed," he said of Microsoft's security team. "They would ping me every time they reached a milestone on the fix."

Even so, he admitted that patching quickly is better than fixing slowly. "As a security researcher, you always want to see a patch the day after you report a bug," Smith said.

In fact, Microsoft has not yet wrapped up work on a fix, Reavey acknowledged. "We'll release something that will block all known attacks next week," he said, referring to Tuesday, July 14, when Microsoft rolls out its monthly security updates. But it won't be a full-fledged patch.

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